In the last few months, the word rippled through news reports of tragic teen suicides in Connecticut, New York, Nova Scotia and Britain.
It's the same word sometimes used to describe the way reality TV stars treat one another on camera, or how unfriendly office mates interact or why grade school pals stop getting along.
Every parent, teacher and child knows the word: "bullying." But this month, as schools and communities launch fresh campaigns around National Bullying Prevention Month, some are urging more precise use of the B-word.
"Bullying," some researchers say, has been misused and abused in the last few years -- too casually uttered about every hurt, slight and fight, too frequently used in place of "teasing" or "fighting," too often brought up before there's proof it happened.
The very word, some say, has been bullied.
"By calling everything bullying, we're actually failing to recognize the seriousness of the problem," said Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. "It's one of the unfortunate side effects of doing an awareness campaign ... everyone wants to adopt it."
It began a few years ago, as horrifying stories of bullying hit the media and serious awareness began to spread. Educators, lawmakers, parents and children all tried to make sense of it, even as it evolved with the latest social network. But along the way, people sometimes confused bullying with the unfortunate -- but normal -- moments of angry, thoughtless or hurtful behavior.
Actual bullying, many educators and social scientists say, is intentional, repetitive abuse by a powerful person toward a less powerful target.
But not everyone defines it the same way: Although most states have bullying laws on the books, according to the Education Commission of the States, it's handled differently around the country. New Hampshire's law specifies that an act need occur only once -- not multiple times -- to be bullying. Nebraska's law calls on local districts to create bullying policies. Several states recently added provisions to cover cyberbullying -- bullying or harassment through technology. Laws in Massachusetts and New Jersey detail how educators should prevent, report and investigate bullying.
Say the word in almost any school these days, and it will get a quick reaction. In many cases, advocates said, that's helpful. But sometimes, when it's not really bullying, kids miss out on a chance to learn to cope with minor conflicts on their own.
"The label 'bullying' is really incendiary," Englander said. "It ratchets everything up emotionally. It makes it hard to really address, rationally, what the best course of action is."
The people hurt most by the overuse of "bullying," Englander said, are young people most desperate for a solution -- those in the midst of very real, traumatic instances of bullying, students whose pain might be overlooked in a crush of reported cases.
"Being deliberately isolated and laughed at cruelly every single day can be devastating socially and academically, because the target must both endure the present and constantly dread the future," Englander wrote in the book "Bullying and Cyberbulling," released this month. "It's this unrelenting cruelty and the callous nature of such an environment that is watered down when we include every social slight or quarrel under the bullying rubric."
"If everyone's a victim," she wrote, "then no one's a victim."
Still, some educators and parents worry that even scaling back on the word "bullying" could put a chill on training and conversations about bullying -- and quash the newfound courage some have found to stand up against it.
'It wasn't all that simple'
Even after years of training, it can be hard to untangle the threads of a possible bullying case.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, an educator for more than two decades, recalled how conflicts between students were never as black-and-white as they seemed at first. A child who bullied might express remorse, then relapse. A girl would complain of bullying by a child she'd once targeted. LGBT students in a school known for its kind atmosphere would quietly admit to daily torment. Religious students were targeted, and secular students, too. All over the playground and lunchroom, students might freeze out another child, demeaning him without saying a word.
To identify a child as a bully or victim was difficult -- and dangerous.
"As a principal, parents would come to my school and you'd kind of dig in, and it wasn't all that simple," Cohn-Vargas said. "It's not like there are bad bullies and good kids. Every kid is able to do some kind of bullying behavior."
People should be diligent about how they use the word bullying, Cohn-Vargas said, but that doesn't mean they should stop talking about it. As the director of Not in Our Schools, she now advocates creating "identity safe" schools. The idea is to prevent bullying and create a positive learning spaces by teaching kids about each others' cultures and encouraging them to step up if they believe someone will be hurt by another person's actions.
Englander, of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, suggests teachers and parents talk with students immediately if they see a behavior that violates social norms; whether it's the only time it has happened, or it's part of a bullying situation, young people need to hear right away that it's not OK to whisper about others or tease people, for example.
But even schools that feel safe will sometimes experience fist fights, tearful teasing -- and bullying. After many years of research and practice, Cohn-Vargas now knows she shouldn't respond to them all the same way, and that bullying prevention training has to be ongoing.
"It's not a one-shot assembly or learn the rules thing," she said. "You have to have a really good understanding of the definition, and everyone has to know how to respond."
It's one thing to train teachers and school staff members, but it can be tough to train people outside the school, especially parents.